With borrowed textbooks and a temporary principal, the District of Columbia's new model academic high school will hobble into existence in a worn-down building when school opens in two weeks.
Despite its humble beginnings, the academic high school represents an ambitious effort by D.C. school officials to recapture the public's confidence -- especially that of the middle class -- after a decade of turmoil and poor, albeit slowly improving, academic performance in the city's schools.
"The academic high school will give us an opportunity to provide substantive evidence of the capability of our students to perform at a superior academic level," said newly selected school Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie.
The academic high school is billed as the toughest in the city, but it has not captured the brightest public school students. Most of the school's 300 pupils are serious-minded C+ to B+ students whose main goal is to go to college. One of the major, continuing criticisms of the D.C. school system is that high school graduates are ill-prepared to enter college.
While school officials have watered down slightly the entrance and course requirements since the school was first envisioned six years ago by the staff of former superintendent Vincent E. Reed, the academic high school will still require its students to take more math, history and foreign language courses, including one year of Latin, than other high school students in the city.
Located in the old, red brick Banneker Junior High School near Georgia Avenue and Euclid Street NW, the school will be different in other ways. While students at nearby Cardozo High School will be attending football games after school, or marching in Cardozo's famous band, students at the academic school will still be in class or working in the Operation Rescue tutoring project to help elementary grade students. Community service is part of the required curriculum at the academic school.
Even the physical education course will include reading and writing reports on health care and environmental matters as well as the usual exercises and sports. The academic high school students will also receive instruction from some professors and graduate students at nearby Howard University.
The students will be able to choose from very few electives, and those that they can take will be primarily in academic subjects such as advanced college placement chemistry, world literature and calculus.
Unlike other high schools, where there are often 28 or more students in a class, there will be an average of 23 students for each teacher at the academic school.
Although some critics of the school predicted that it would create a private school within the public school system to benefit mostly white, middle-class students, an early profile of the student body shows that most of the students come from Anacostia, far Northeast and far Southeast, which are predominantly poor and middle-class black neighborhoods.
To win entrance, students had to be in the top 18 percent of their class and be reading at their respective grade levels.
Barbara Stallams, one of the pioneer students at the academic school who was at Banneker yesterday helping to send out first-of-the-year letters to parents, says she is looking forward to the new challenges.
As a ninth grader at Lincoln Junior High School last year, the 16-year-old Stallams said she took English I, algebra, general science, physical education and art, what she called "basketweaving courses, except for algebra.
"This year I'll be taking geometry, but with kids as smart as me, so I'll have to work harder to get good grades. It won't be the same thing as at Lincoln where I was a lot smarter than a lot of the other kids."
The school's program, however, is far from set.
Acting Principal Cecile Middleton had to borrow all the textbooks and some of the lab equipment from other schools after the D.C. school board refused to accept a federal grant for start-up costs because it did not want the new school to have more money than other high schools.
The academic school was one of the most controversial issues to face the board in the last few years. The board rejected it twice before finally approving it last January, and it is still unpopular with several school board members who see it as draining resources from other schools.
The school still has no permanent principal, although McKenzie said she will soon pick one from a list of three finalists. The board then will have to approve McKenzie's choice.
"My personal opinion is that it would have been better if they had had a principal early on," said Middleton, who is not a candidate for the permanent appointment.
Former acting superintendent James T. Guines, who oversaw the development of the academic high school until last July, said he felt public pressure to get the school open as soon as possible. As a result, he said, he felt that it would have a better chance of opening next month if Middleton, a former principal who helped devise the academic school, took the job temporarily.